Wednesday, February 4, 2009
In Mississippi, a new year means more than just changing calendars. It means the Legislature is back in session, and all 174 of our elected representatives have descended upon the capital city.
As elected officials go, Mississippi's don't do a half bad job. The problem is that there are so many of them.
The state of Mississippi, with roughly 3 million people and a median household income of $34,000, has a House of Representatives larger than the entire legislative assembly of California.
That state has a population of nearly 34 million and has a legislative body of just 40 senators and 80 assemblymen. Mississippi's Legislature is home to 52 senators and 122 representatives.
The sheer size of the Mississippi Legislature is appalling. Each one of these people is paid not only a yearly salary, but a per diem for each day they are in session, a state retirement package and additional perks. And let us not forget that having extra legislators means extra staff, extra postage and a whole assortment of extra costs associated with elected officials.
And in all honesty, what do legislators do? Like other government employees, they don't contribute to the economy.
The Legislature is not the only place where government offices seem to be overstaffed. Mississippi has a total of 82 counties. Compare that with the 58 counties in California. Despite the fact that California has 10 times the population, three times the landmass, and 20 times the gross state product, Mississippi's legislature is approximately one third larger.
That means 24 additional Boards of Supervisors, 24 additional election commissions, 24 additional tax collectors, and all of the additional administrative support staff that accompanies county government.
Beyond having an overflow of counties, Mississippi's Constitution has an antiquated rule requiring the county seat to be within a one-day's journey by horse from every part of the county. This means that 11 counties (of which Hinds is one) have more than one county seat, and, therefore, own more tax-exempt property.
Suddenly all the additional administrative costs in Mississippi are adding up. But we're not done, yet.
With 82 counties and 93 county seats the state also has over 150 independent school districts. Every district has a superintendent and his or her secretary. Most even have an assistant superintendent.
The size of some of these school districts is even more preposterous than their number. Long Beach School District is not even the smallest in Mississippi, and it only has five schools.
WLOX Biloxi reported Jan. 16 that the school district, like others in Mississippi, is strapped for cash. State Superintendent Hank Bounds says the whole state education system suffers from this bad economy as much as the rest of the country. At a time when we are hearing news stories about schools unable to buy toilet paper and debating teacher salaries, why do we maintain superfluous administrative positions paying three or four times what a teacher makes? A school district like Long Beach could easily be combined with one or more other districts, freeing up funds for everything from text books to building improvements.
The simple fact is that the Mississippi government is bloated, and it is a financial drain on our state.
Now some may argue that all these additional representatives, superintendents and other elected officials mean better representation, more personal attention from your legislator. While there is something to be said for that, I'd encourage anyone to invite his or her legislator over to dinner and see what the response is.
Or an even better test: Ask the "man on the street" who his county supervisor is. Even many politically active people cannot name their county supervisor, elected tax commissioner or election commissioner.
Now I certainly don't expect the Legislature to vote to shrink itself. No one wants to be that guy whose seat is combined with someone else's. But in a time when we are demanding that companies restructure and streamline, the least we can do is demand our government do the same. By combining school districts, county administrations, and, yes, even legislative districts, the state can devote more financial resources to needed programs.
The first step, albeit a small one, could be a constitutional amendment eliminating the dual county seats and auctioning off the excess property. From there, the Department of Education should combine the administrations of school districts within counties, making allowances for major metropolitan areas. This could easily cut the total number of districts by one third. The state could then use the money allotted for excess superintendents' salaries and extra building utilities for text books, field trips, teacher pay increases and any number of educational programs.
I, for one, would rather pay for textbooks than superintendents.